Avoid these scams and hold on to your bags

Times Staff Writer

Quick. You're striding through a crowded airport on the way to your flight when the well-dressed woman in front of you suddenly drops her purse, spilling change and personal items all over the concourse. Should you stop to help pick up her belongings?

Not if means putting down your bag. She might be setting you up for what police call a distraction theft. While you're gallantly scooping up nickels and quarters, a confederate of hers -- or even a brazen opportunist passing by -- might walk off with your suitcase. Similar thefts happen in airports every day.

There were more than 2,000 crimes reported at Los Angeles International Airport last year, with theft the most common. From L.A. to Chicago to Rome, the tricks thieves use are almost always the same, preying on weary, distracted or even naively polite airport visitors.

The odds of sailing through an airport unscathed are definitely in your favor -- more than 67 million passengers passed through LAX in 2000 -- but the bad guys are out there, intent on ruining your next trip.

"They've been committing the same scams for centuries," said travel safety consultant Kevin Coffey. "They've just updated them during the past 10 years."

Thieves who commit travel crimes tend to fall into two categories. The first is made up of criminal opportunists, the everyday lowlifes travelers can usually spot.

"It's the guy we've all seen on 'Cops,'" says Coffey, a former airport detective, "the shifty character who doesn't fit."

The other, more dangerous type of crook is the travel specialist, who has developed an area of expertise and sticks to it as a career. Such scam artists do fit in, moving easily through airports disguised as business or leisure travelers. They may be men or women, often working in groups, executing carefully choreographed deceptions. One nervy thief at LAX stole mountains of luggage while dressed as an airline pilot.

Their preferred hunting grounds are large international airports, says Coffey, president of Calabasas, Calif.-based Corporate Travel Safety. Such airports have the most visitors, many of whom are jet-lagged, befuddled and don't speak the local language.

Crooks know travelers have business or leisure itineraries that beckon and are less likely to stick around and make a police report or look at mug shots of suspects. It's also less likely that they'll be willing to come back to town and testify should an arrest be made.

So what steps can you take to avoid being the victim of a travel scam?

Start planning before you leave home. If you intend to check your bag, don't put anything inside that you would be devastated to lose -- no family heirlooms, critical documents or heart medication. Pretend you will never see any of it again. Put critical items in your carry-on luggage.

Tape your name and contact information inside. If thieves don't yank off your luggage tags, they may disappear in the rough-and-tumble of an airport conveyor system. Without references, the airline or police may not be able to reunite you with your bags. Some travelers include a hotel itinerary so they can be located away from home. A few extremely thorough people actually carry itemized descriptions of the contents of their bags or take Polaroid photos of what they pack.

While the list of what missing items most airline will pay for is surprisingly short (forget about false teeth, musical instruments or airline tickets), your odds of being reimbursed improve if you can say exactly what was lost or stolen. And don't be surprised if you're asked to produce the receipt for that pinstripe suit you bought three years ago.

Mark your bag with tape or paint, anything that makes it more visible from a distance. Your property will be easier to spot in a crowd and less likely to be picked up by a crook or a mistaken honest traveler.

Lock your bags to help keep luggage handlers honest. There are also special locking straps or covers available in travel stores that can provide an extra layer of protection. Another effective measure is to tightly bind your bag in industrial-grade plastic wrap. If it arrives cut, you know you've had an unwelcome visitor en route.When you arrive at the airport, it's time to really start paying attention.

"Watch your hat and coat, as the old restaurant sign used to say," says Chief Bernard J. Wilson of the airport police at LAX. "It's not a crime-ridden place, but as is the case anywhere there are crowds, there are opportunities for people to take advantage of you."

Reported crime at the airport has been falling for the past four years, Wilson said. Passenger traffic continues to sharply increase, however, which heightens the challenge for law enforcement to further reduce crime statistics.

Challenges for fliers begin in front of the terminal. One look at the intimidating lines snaking in front of the ticket counter impels many to check their bags at the curb. It's a good strategy, but don't take your eyes off your bags, even after you've checked them in. Make sure your suitcases are tagged for the proper destination, then watch them until they disappear on the conveyor belt. Skycaps often pile up luggage on a cart for several minutes before putting it into the system, leaving it vulnerable.

Lines at the curb and ticket counter have other risks, such as the "stall and dip." In this scam, a crook engages you in conversation and distracts you while a partner dips in and snags your bag. By the time you're done yakking about the weather in Pittsburgh, your carry-on bag may have left the airport.

Stay alert as you pass through the security gate, another zone of vulnerability. You want to be the one who picks up your property as it comes off the X-ray conveyor belt. Don't put your luggage into the machine until the gate is clear for you to pass through. Crooks sometimes intentionally hold up the line by repeatedly setting off the metal detector with a series of keys, change and other metallic objects. An accomplice steals choice luggage while everyone waits.

Stopping off for a drink or a sandwich? Keep your belongings close and in sight. If you're sitting at the bar, you may want to slip your foot through the strap on your garment bag to make sure it doesn't leave before you do. Never tune out.

"It's not the normal thing for us to pack up all our belongings and carry them around," says Wilson. "People forget (where they are) and do things like fall asleep."

Need to check in at the office? Phone banks can be dicey. Criminals who specialize in "shoulder surfing" may look over your shoulder while you're dialing and pick up your credit card number. Ambitious thieves have been known to pretend to videotape friends while secretly zooming in on fingers hitting a keypad. Shield the numbers as you dial or use a phone card that slides into the phone.

Another ruse is to drop a few dollar bills next to someone making a call, then nudge him and point to the money. When the phone user bends down to retrieve the cash he hopes is his, the criminal steals unwatched property, perhaps a wallet or purse that the caller opened to retrieve a phone card.

Not even the airplane is a complete safety zone. "You can buy a ticket for $39 sometimes," Coffey points out, so professional thieves or dishonest opportunists may be on board.

Valuable items are better off under the seat in front of you, because it's hard to see what's going on in the overhead compartment when you're sitting down. Women should be wary of where their purses rest. Coffey reports cases where fellow passengers have surreptitiously removed one credit card, leaving the victims unaware until it was way too late.

What's your first stop when you get off? For many, it is the restroom. If you must visit a stall, the best ones are against a wall where you can safely stash your luggage. A few toilet seat covers will keep it from touching the floor directly. Be especially alert in developing countries, where the under-the-door grab is more common that in the United States. You may want to put your purse over your shoulder or around your neck.

Bathroom bandits are also known to reach over the top of a stall and jerk purses or bags off coat hooks hanging on the door. Coffey knows of airports that have removed the hooks to prevent theft, only to see the them reappear. "Crooks were putting hooks back up," he says.

Don't dally on your way to the baggage claim. You want to be there when suitcases start popping out of the chute. While watching for your plainly marked luggage, remember to keep tabs on your carry-on items. Thieves know that tired travelers sometimes lose track of their most valuable property while scrambling to pull a duffel off the conveyor.

A trip to Jamaica and Miami ended badly last spring for a Granada Hills, Calif., couple who waited in vain at LAX for their luggage to appear. Inside were expensive clothes they had worn to a wedding and about $1,000 worth of carefully selected souvenirs. "We stood there like fools," says Kevin Van, waiting for bags that had already been stolen.

Airport police eventually caught up with the busy thief at a downtown Los Angeles hotel. Among many stolen items were some of Van's old clothes, but his valuables were long gone. A dispute with the airline over the value of the lost luggage has yet to be resolved.

While it makes sense to be prepared for the worst, it's still good to know that most people in the terminal are honest. Airport police collect many lost items each day, often returned by good Samaritans. "'We've had people turn in large amounts of cash," said an LAX policewoman. "And we've got many, many cell phones lying around."

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